Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary Louise Parker, Bill Camp with Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons
Plot: Former ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) is duped into working as a Sparrow, a Russian agent that seduces secrets out of powerful men.
Red Sparrow didn’t do too well with the critics. Some may argue it is just a case of bad timing. As Red Sparrow hit cinemas, a poisoning in Salisbury was linked back to the Russian government, meaning that the idea of Russian spies stealing secrets and taking out witnesses wasn’t a very popular topic. You could almost feel for Lawrence, both director and actress, as their spy thriller accidentally walked into a bloodbath of a topic. Removing context from the equation, there are still a few arguments floating around about why Red Sparrow didn’t do as well as it hoped. Female bodies and sexuality used as tools for powerful men is just as controversial a topic as Russian spies, and while Lawrence’s movie is condemning the men who objectify women, it is still pretty clear that the movie was using the nudity of some its cast (namely Jennifer Lawrence), to garner some extra views. Even when sex isn’t being used for entertainment purposes, it is really quite graphic, with some shocking rape scenes thrown into the mix to hammer home some of the film’s nastier points. Another reason for Red Sparrow’s critical failure could be the fact that from the outside, Red Sparrow looks like a lot more fun than it is. Sexy spies, back-stabbing politics, secret agents… Red Sparrow could have been another entry into the long line of female spy movies, like Atomic Blonde, or perhaps Francis Lawrence fantasising about writing the standalone Black Widow movie. But the truth is Red Sparrow pays closer attention to the spy era of John Le Carre, feeling more like a weighty Harry Palmer movie or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Thickly plotted, heavily handled, this is definitely a film based on a novel – and a big one at that! However, when the controversy of sexual politics and Russian skulduggery dampens down, hopefully the smoke will clear on Lawrence’s film and audiences will realise that this is quite a good movie.
It opens with Jennifer Lawrence’s ballerina Dominika breaking her leg during a strenuous performance and finding her domestic life at risk. From that moment, the poor ex-dancer finds herself trapped in a deadly whirlwind of events. As nightmare after nightmare hits Dominika, it is painfully clear that she had no control over what had happened to her. The film quickly shows us that her dancing injury was actually pre-meditated by her biggest rival and Dominika’s cunning uncle uses her financial situation to lure her into the grasp of the Russian government. Tricking her into witnessing something she shouldn’t, Dominika’s uncle, played with typical excellent creepiness by Matthias Schoenaerts, who is asked to channel a touch of Putin into this character, sticks Dominika between a rock and a hard place. Either she makes herself useful to the government or they will be forced to execute her for knowing too much. As Dominika finds herself a spot in Sparrow School, where women are taught how to seduce men and extract secrets, like some sort of twisted fantasy version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, both the character and the audience are aware that everything is far too convenient for Dominika to have just suffered an atrocious hand of bad luck. From that point onwards, the movie leaves us guessing into how powerless Dominika actually is. Her situation seems dire from some emotionally exhausting life lessons in Sparrow School (while Jennifer Lawrence struggles at first with the Russian accents, eventually her usual brand of amazing emotional work shines through), to the severity of life out in the open, as she juggles deadly American agents and cold-hearted Russian spies. Both of the Lawrences do great work at making Dominika such a three-dimensional character, but never actually giving too much away. As she gets closer to Joel Edgerton’s American agent, Nate Nash, we don’t truly know her motives until the very end of the film. Is she thinking of defecting to the States to finally escape the Russian government? Or is she playing Nash, in order to get the identity of an undercover Russian traitor? For fans of the spy genre, by the time you are knee deep in this intelligent thriller, it won’t matter a jolt if there isn’t much action. The suspenseful set-pieces – not to mention the scariest method of torture in quite some time – is more than enough to keep you ticking over. What remains is a solid piece of story-telling, anchored by an actress and a director at the top of their game.
Final Verdict: Ignore the reviews. Red Sparrow may not deliver action, but it gives you a suspenseful thriller with enough plot to keep you thinking.